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What's keeping you from socializing?

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February 12th, 2016
Intergenerational volunteering
Intergenerational volunteering

You probably had quite an active social life when you were younger. But over the years, socializing may have taken a back seat to other priorities such as caring for your or your spouse’s health. Or your close friends may have moved to a new area.

But although it may not seem like a prime concern, you need to keep socializing. “Being actively engaged with other people actually improves your health,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “Research shows that being socially active can lower the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression.” 

On the flip side, people who isolate themselves tend to have increased rates of high blood pressure, dementia-related illnesses, depression, and early death.

A small investment pays off 

Scientists have been investigating the compelling associations between socializing and good health. One set of researchers found that just a small amount of interaction can facilitate cognitive performance. Study participants completed cognitive tests, interacted socially for various periods of time, and retook the tests. The researchers found that after just 10 minutes of social interaction, the participants’ performance on the tests was significantly improved. 

The types of social interactions tend to change throughout life. A large study of adults ages 57 to 85 found that the three most popular social activities were talking with neighbors, participating in religious activities, and volunteering. Research shows that all three of these are associated with better health. Other studies show that going to restaurants, playing bingo, and caring for grandchildren also boost physical and cognitive health.

Getting started

“Not everyone likes mingling with other people,” Tam says. “Some people are introverts and that’s not likely to change.

“Keeping in touch with family is one simple solution,” Tam continues. “Even having dinner now and then is a good way to stay socially active to some degree.”

Everyone has at least one hobby or activity they enjoy. “Figure out a way to do what you like with other people,” Tam says. “If you get at least one foot in the door, it’s easier to get accustomed to interpersonal interaction.”

People who don’t like to socialize in person may have no problem meeting people online. But seniors have to be wary about who they are communicating with. “People tell me they’re wooed for months on end by someone they’ve encountered online that they haven’t met in person,” says Maria Coder, author of InvestiDate: How to Investigate Your Date. “This person may ask for money—small amounts at first, then they get larger and larger.”

Coder suggests that after exchanging a few emails, arrange to meet the person in a public place. 

Removing unknown barriers

Maybe fatigue or aching joints keep you from going out as often as you’d like. This is where your doctor can help by giving you a tune-up. “Your doctor can review your medications and give you a thorough checkup to see if there are ways to minimize symptoms and make you feel well enough to get out and enjoy company.” 

It could be that you don’t know what’s keeping you from enjoying outside activities. You may be depressed, or your hearing might be getting worse and you can’t hear conversations very well. Tam recalls a patient whose vision was progressively getting worse—a problem that had been happening so gradually that the patient and her husband thought blindness was inevitable, and they had to stop doing many activities they enjoyed. Then she was referred to an ophthalmologist who found something surprising. “She had scar tissue within her eye structures that couldn’t previously be detected until it had built up to a certain point,” Tam explains. “Once it was removed, her vision was significantly improved and she was able to resume her previous activities.” 

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